In an address to the Synodal Assembly this morning, Anna Rowlands, a professor of Catholic social thought and practice at Durham University in the United Kingdom and one of the Synod’s expert advisors, spoke on the theme of “Communion: The Wedding Feast of the Lamb.”
Rowlands’s remarks came as the assembly was preparing to begin the second module of spiritual conversation, linked to section B.1 of the working document or Instrumentum Laboris. The module is titled “A Communion That Radiates.”
Calling communion “the reality of God’s own life,” Rowlands said that “Our first action in relation to this reality is a joyous, non-anxious, non-competitive reception.”
“The church both shows and gives communion with God, who is communion for all creation,” she said. “Communion is then our being and our doing.”
Rowlands then outlined three “dimensions” or ways to think about communion, including as “the beauty of diversity in unity,” as “exist[ing] in concrete, tangible realities,” and as “a participation that ties us to others across time and space.”
In reflecting on this second dimension of communion as concrete, tangible reality, Rowlands underscored the importance of “table friendships” in Jesus’s ministry. She elaborated on this with an example from her own experience working with a Catholic refugee charity in London.
“I asked the refugees who came for assistance why they chose this particular service,” she said. “I will never forget their reply: because here I am welcomed at the door by name, and the staff sit and eat with us at the same table. This dignifies me, it gives me back my humanity.”
Her reflection immediately brought to mind a scene from the documentary Not Worth Killing, which was shown as part of the first day of programming for the “Human Rights in the Emerging Catholic Church” event presented this week by the ecumenical network Spirit Unbounded.
Not Worth Killing follows the story of Mitchell Rutledge, who is currently serving a sentence of life without parole in the Donaldson Correctional Facility in Alabama, and his friendship with Sr. Lillian Oliver of the Immaculate Heart Community in California.
In 1983, Oliver read an interview with Rutledge in Time magazine in which the writer denigrated his intelligence and stated in no uncertain terms that he was of no value to anyone. In the interview, Rutledge had expressed remorse for his crimes. The writer’s final words—“forget him”—stuck Oliver as an affront to everything she believed about the inherent dignity of a human being.
She later recalled that reading the Time interview “caused a quotation from the book of Isaiah to surface in my memory: ‘I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands’” (Isa 49:15-16).
Inspired by the words of the prophet, Oliver wrote to Rutledge. In the film, he says that her first letter communicated to him: “I will never forget you. You have someone in your life now.”
Rutledge had grown up fatherless and his mother had died when he was very young, leaving him without a point of connection in the world. Oliver became that point, once telling him, “I thought my job was to get you ready for heaven.”
The religious sister even moved from California to Alabama to be closer to Rutledge. She taught him how to read and write, and opened his life so that he could begin to forgive himself. Her friendship “gave me the motivation to want to grow and learn,” he says.
With her help as a character witness, Rutledge’s sentence was changed from the death penalty to life without parole in 1985.
Oliver died in 2015 after devoting 30 years of her life to Rutledge. Their friendship is a model of “a communion that radiates,” and her witness as a loving presence answers the question framing this week’s Synodal Assembly: “How can we be more fully a sign and instrument of union with God and of the unity of all humanity?” ♦
Editor, Today’s American Catholic